Thursday 12 December 2013

The bit in between

Right now, I’m still progressing quite well with my return to climbing from surgery. The weather in Scotland has been rubbish, so much of my climbing has been indoors. Every night, I’ve been working away on my basic balance, ankle and and body strength exercises. It's not very glamourous stuff; just standing on one leg with my eyes shut and making shapes, over and over again. I had some alarming losses in strength to regain. But the nightly work is paying off and I can notice that I can get a lot more weight through my foot on steep ground since I was Spain a few weeks ago. The surgeon is happy with my progress, although he did say there was a fair bit of trauma (osteophytes trimmed back from both my talus and tibia) to recover from. 

On a rope, I feel reasonably confident now, but in bouldering, I’m still very timid to land for good reason. I went to TCA last night and still have to climb everything as if I’m soloing and climb back down rather than jump or fall. It will probably be good for my climbing to do this for a little while.

So I’m in the bit in between being a surgical patient and recovered climber. There is still work to do, but I’m enjoying the progress. As I write, I’m en route to speak at the Bozeman Ice Festival this weekend. Hopefully, when I return at the end of next week there will be some winter conditions for me to get into back home. Then it’s only a short time until I go on a rather exciting climbing trip!

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Venezuela Jungle Jam film

Finally, we just got our copies of the new film from the crazy Belgians in the shop: Venezuela Jungle Jam. Nico Favresse, Sean Villanueva and their climbing partners are the undisputed kings of making expedition climbing movies. They are also pretty much the kings of making badass climbing expeditions. It’s a killer combination.

Their previous films Asgard Jamming and Vertical Sailing have been very popular with you and for good reason. They are two of the most fun climbing films you’ll ever see and full of all the ingredients of great adventure - big characters, thrills and spills and unexpected funny moments. Venezuela Jungle Jam is the latest in the line! It’s already picking up a string of awards on the film festival circuit. In this film they are off to the amazing 500m sandstone Tepuy of Venezuela to deal with sweaty jungles, wild animals, loose rock, falls, overhanging big walls and, always, jamming on the portaledge.

The climbing looks challenging, in just about all the ways it could (apart from being cold). The scenery is gob smacking and as you’ll just about see in the teaser (it really is a tease) Sean’s superb sideways plummet off a ledge is another one of those ‘oh my god’ moments we almost come to expect from these guys. Brilliant stuff. The DVD is 58 mins plus extras, Subtitles in English, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Polish and German.

I’ve also just added the Distilled DVD now we have our DVD stock, so you can either download it, or get it for your winter partner for Christmas!

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Two new films for winter

I’ve just added two new climbing films to the shop. First up is Distilled, Hot Aches Productions new film about Scottish winter climbing with Andy Cave. There are still only a handful of films out there about Scottish winter, and of these, one one or two really good ones. So it’s great to see another. Andy explores what is so special about this ‘distilled’ form of alpinism by going climbing on all types of routes from the classic mountaineering routes like Tower Ridge to proper hard mixed in proper wild conditions. Inspiring and timely stuff. You’ll find Distilled in the shop for HD download and the DVDs will be with us in a few days.

Next is The Last Great Climb DVD, Alastair Lee’s latest film with Leo Houlding. Leo increasingly these days is going on some pretty badass expeditions to far flung places. Ulvetanna in Antarctica is just about as far flung as you can get. It’s a jaw dropping mountain to look at and the line they managed to climb on it just looks sensational. As you might expect with Alastair, although it’s heavy on the cheese factor at times it is very well filmed and a great adventure. One to make you think twice about just going down the local wall and booking a ticket to the other side of the world instead.

Monday 25 November 2013

Fresh eyes

I came back to my big traverse project, which unfortunately was quite wet. However, good progress can still be made even though I can’t try all of it. With fresh eyes, I spotted quite a few changes to my sequence that seem so obvious now, but didn’t before. It always makes me smile when that happens. Why don’t you see an obviously easier way to do a move before, but having had a wee bit of time away, it’s obvious? Who knows, but it’s nice anyway. I felt like I almost did the project just before I went in for surgery. So I'm gunning for a dry day where I can get a chance to see where I'm at on it now.

My ankle continues to have up and down progress. I can now do some rather shaky one-leg calf raises, which were completely impossible 1 week ago. I can also bat hang again. However, although I can hang upside down from holds by my toes, walking up mountains is still challenging.

I tried a longish walk over classic tussocky Scottish bog, in search of some new crags. I found a great deep water soloing venue 5 miles from my house! However, after 45 minutes, it hurt.

So at least another week of bouldering, training, physio, book editing etc. Maybe I’ll see some of you on Thursday night in London for my talk at the Royal Geographical Society.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Post surgery: 4.5 weeks

In my last two days in Margalef, I managed to keep up the progress with my surgery rehab. I had a quick try on another 8c and although I got it in two halves, I still wasn’t able to get much power through my left foot or move with any confidence. However, even the next day I could feel it getting better and actually got fairly close to doing the route. My body movements are still feeling pretty foreign. That might sound a bit silly, but it’s a difficult sensation to explain. Because I climb a lot and have climbed for years, my brain has such a strong expectation of how my body ought to move. So when it doesn’t function that way, it feels like it’s someone else climbing.

On my last day, after a couple of quick tries on the 8c, I got a bouldery 8a+ redpointed in half an hour or so, and a 7c+ onsight. On both of those, although I’m still far off fitness, I felt a bit more myself during the climbing. I can’t tell you what a satisfying feeling that is.

So now I’ve had a handful of climbing days to get me started, I’m heading back to Scotland and can try and build a base of fitness and confidence again. The next stage is to be able to walk up a hill again. After this trip I’ve consolidated walking for 10 minutes or so on uneven paths. So if my upward progress continues I’ll hopefully manage to walk a mile or so, and then I’ll shoot for walking up a Munro and climbing 8c again. My goal (if it’s not to cold now) will be to complete my 8c project at Ruthven as soon as I can. The rest before the crux has a left foot toe hook though, so I might have to try powering on through instead!

[Update] Since writing the post above I managed to miss the last tube train back from a gig in Glasgow and walked at least a mile through Govan in the wee small hours to find some transport home. It might not count since it was under the influence of a few analgesics. I'll take it as further progress anyway.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Post surgery: 4 weeks

Tomorrow is 4 weeks since my ankle surgery. I’ve had just as many ups and downs as I expected. At first, I was going great guns, ditching my crutches quite early on and starting to walk quite freely around the house. In the second week, I even had a 15 minute climbing session on easy problems at the Ice Factor. 

Then the ankle became infected, I got antibiotics, they made me get really sick, then it got super swollen and exquisitely painful. All of this coincided with a family trip to Fontainbleau, the first day of which I spent lying as still as possible in bed with a fever. After that, I was of course desperate to climb. The next day I did one 7B+, and paid for it for the rest of the week, limping around generally feeling pretty rough. Back home and I managed to get through a couple of days coaching and lectures in Scotland before getting on another plane to Margalef which I’d arranged long before I’d even had the ankle problem.

When I woke up on the first morning, I wished I’d just cancelled the trip. I’d been hopeful I could begin climbing by now, but the ankle was still really swollen and angry. A 200 metre walk to the crag nearly had me in tears. More antibiotics, rest days and lying down with my foot in the air seems to have brought a breakthrough at last.

Yesterday, I made another tentative start. A 7a+, a 7b and a laughable attempt at an 8c. I know that my confidence won’t take too long to get back, but yesterday felt like I was 16 and weak again. I’ve lost a lot of confidence to be aggressive with my feet and get body tension. To be expected of course.

Today felt slightly better again, with 7b+ onsight and an 8a redpoint, and the crag was about 10 minutes walk from the car (the crux of the day!). Tomorrow I will rest and then we’ll see if I can make another little step in an upward direction.

New titles in the shop

I’ve just added a couple of new books in the shop. Both are must reads for anyone keen for inspiration and information on climbing, but both are very different. The last book is a long awaited guide to some of the finest lumps of rock in the UK.

First up is Julian Lines autobiography ‘Tears of the Dawn’. I imagine most of you will not need introduced to Jules, who has been the ‘dark horse’ of the bold trad and free soloing scene in the UK for the past 15 years or so. I’ve done a couple of his routes myself such as Firestone E7 6c in Hell’s Lum which is archetypal of his climbs - no gear, not really any holds either. Just a deep breath and a lot of trust in the frictional properties of thin granite smears. Many of the nailbiting adventures he’s had over the years involve free soloing, by himself on the quiet mountain crags of the highlands. But he’s also well known for his deep water soloing exploits, not to mention jumping off cliffs and paragliding. He’s hit the ground from a long way up too many times to mention, but is either a very lucky man or has bendy bones. It’s a great window into the mind of an solo adventurer, but very much the opposite of an Alex Honhold type of character.

Next is The Art of Ice Climbing, a lovely book which is part coffee table inspiration book, part technical manual. It’s a great production with interesting historical and new photography throughout. It has excellent advice sections on sharpening ice tools, screws, ropework and techniques for ice climbing. I think just about any ice climber would learn something new here. In the past there have been some great books on ice climbing that every climber should have on their shelf. I reckon this is the latest in that line.

Lastly, I’ve added the new Torridon bouldering guide which is finally out by local activists Ian Taylor and Richie Betts. It’s great to see this guide finally out. The rock at Torridon is the best I’ve climbed on in the UK. It’s truly amazing stuff, and many of the problems are amazing natural lines too. The guys have done a great job producing this guide which contains around 250 problems to go at, and of course many first ascents still waiting to be explored.

You’ll find all of these, along with the rest of the best climbing books, films and gear out there in the shop.

Thursday 24 October 2013

BBC climbs; Handa and the caves DVD available

I’ve just added a new climbing DVD to the webshop. It’s the double DVD of two BBC programmes I shot last year. The first is a re-enactment of one of the first recorded climbs in the UK; a crossing by three men from the Western Isles onto the Great Stac of Handa in 1867. It was quite an experience to recreate their feat of daring and a window into a way of life now long gone. The inspiration to make a film about it came from an essay by Tom Patey in an old SMC journal, where he expressed his amazement at the strength and ingenuity of the Lewismen for rigging up a rope successfully and climbing across the huge gap to the stac. Patey himself had found the crossing desperate. To film it we had to get a 400m rope that was really thick (it weighed 45kgs) and cart it across Handa and then set it up spanning between the headlands on either side of the Stac. It was quite amazing the Lewismen thought to do it that way. 

The second film couldn't be more different. The huge networks of limestone caves underneath the dales of Yorkshire and the Peak District obviously have some fantastic rock features, but they aren’t normally visited by rock climbers! Myself and Alan Cassidy went on a wee mission to see if there was good rock climbing to be had in the caves. What we found was pretty adventurous and definitely out of the ordinary. First off we climbed the a big circular chamber of Jingling Pot in Yorkshire. It went at about E3 although that obviously doesn’t do it much justice since it was running with water and totally dark. But that was just a warm up for the 4-pitch monster 7c+ we climbed in Peak Cavern - the biggest cave opening in the peak, and our route was the first free climb In the whole cave. It was quite a lucky and special experience. Both programmes are 1 hour long.

It’s in the shop here.

Our new 4 pitch 7c+ in Peak Cavern on the Extraordinary Climbs film

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Post surgery; 1 week

Things have gone well for me. Much better than I expected. 48 hours after surgery, I was on the campus board in TCA and doing easy problems foot-off. After my surgery last year, I couldn’t face this for nearly two weeks. By day 4 I was hobbling a little in the house and at day 7 walking quite normally, if still for very short distances.

Of course I’ve had a couple of ‘sore’ days. Yesterday I didn’t feel like doing anything too far from a sofa until it was time for my physio session in the evening. I’ve still not ventured out for anything more than a few minutes walk. But I’m well happy with the progress so far. Now I have my big fat bandage off, I can see that my foot is not so far from a shape that would accept a rockshoe.

The huge difference between this and my much slower progress in last year’s operation on the other ankle might be accounted for because the joint was much less ‘hot’ at the time of surgery. I.e. I was walking around on a partially functioning foot rather than on crutches on a swollen, angry ankle. 

Roll on the progress!

Friday 18 October 2013

Ruthven Traverses

Ivory Coast Font 7c+ from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

On the way home from the Dolomites the other week, I stopped by at the Ruthven Boulder near Inverness for a session. Blair Fyffe had just added a long traverse at Font 7c (or route 8b - it’s 20 or 30 metres long!). Blair wrote a nice blog about it here. There was an obvious extended start to make it a bit more complete and I thought I’d have a look at that. I repeated the traverse from Blair’s start after a suss of the moves (I’d say it’s more like route 8a+) and then did it from the extended start which adds a great section across the roof on the left side of the boulder. This definitely knocks it up a grade to route 8b or Font 7c/+ish. It’s a classic endurance workout and dries very quickly, so I’m sure it will be keeping local climbers fit in the coming years. If you want the beta, check out the video above. Blair's trav starts from the big jug I bat-hang off. 

Thankfully, it isn’t over there. Where the traverse goes up a level at the crux of ‘The Big Lebowski’, there is an obvious low variation dropping down a bit and continuing on tiny crimpers. After two or three sessions, just before I headed to Glasgow for surgery, I almost got it. So I have something to go back to as soon as I can climb again. The crux is quite a lot harder than the high traverse and it’s going to go at around route 8c I think. Can’t wait to return..

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Surgery's eve

Alan Cassidy on the big Dumbarton project

I was lucky enough to be able to climb recently despite my pending ankle surgery yesterday. For my last day before the appointment with the knife collection, I decided to team up with Alan Cassidy to go on a very inspiring project.

The wall right of Rhapsody at Dumbarton was bolted in the early nineties by the ever optimistic Andy Gallagher. Various very strong people had tried it and noone had made much impression on it. That’s a shame since it’s one of the best lines at an amazing crag, with superb rock and moves. I had a brief play one cold day around 8 years ago. I felt it was just possible but might be upwards of 9a+ minimum. I was getting kind of ‘full’ of climbing at Dumbarton at the time and left it for a life in the highlands.

Just as well Alan took an interest and looked at it again, giving it a proper clean for the first time. A couple of tiny, but useful holds appeared from under the lichen, that maybe tip it in the direction of possible, although the grade might still start with 9… 

I had a play and was most heartened to be able to do most of the individual moves. It’s clear that it goes and it’s pretty inspiring. I found it kind of ridiculous to be back there after several years, working on the line I’d left behind, thinking that some youth will come along and do it. That will probably still happen, but it’s surprising to me that it hasn't already. There are plenty of folk with the finger strength. All it would take is the attitude. Anyway, it left me with a nice feeling of inspiration with which to enter surgery rehab mode the next day.

I didn’t have to be in hospital until 2.30pm, so at the last minute I jumped out the door first thing and was at Lennoxtown for 8am to look at the other arete project Alex had told me about. I found it (at least I presume it’s the same line?) and it looked amazing! I settled into figuring out it’s exquisite moves for around 30 minutes and realised I was quite close to getting it. Unfortunately it was raining heavily and the sloping topout was running water. I linked it from the start to the topout three times but wasn’t able to pull over on the soggy slopers. Unfortunate, but I’ll still enjoy it when I next get the chance to get on it.

Lennox Castle arete project

After that it was back to reality and a sober drive to hospital to get cut up. The surgeon and staff did a great job and everything went well for me. I was quite terrified of what the surgeon would find in my ankle joint. But it ended up not being as bad as I feared. He pulled several large osteophytes (i.e. Loose chunks of bone) out of the joint and gave a couple of them to me afterwards. I’m not totally sure if they all broke off when I fell off Hold True the other week, or some time before that. Either way, I’m glad to see them out.

No wonder my ankle hurt

Right now, on day one of recovery, I’m totally psyched to get started on a return to fitness. It’s always refreshing to start with a clean slate and reassess all aspects of your game - What climbs do I want to do? What physical weaknesses should I take time to address? There’s plenty to be getting on with.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Supporting Scottish mountain rescue

A good while ago I wrote some posts about Mountain Rescue and ideas on how they might improve their funding. It’s good to see some new developments there: Scottish Mountain Rescue, who represent and co-ordinate the individual rescue teams across the country have secured some corporate sponsorship from Isle of Skye Whisky

At the moment, rescue gets some funding from the Scottish government, but it’s not nearly enough to keep the teams going in the ever increasing costs of rescuing folk in the Scottish mountains. For those of us who live around Ben Nevis for example, the seemingly nightly buzz of the rescue helicopter through the winter is a reminder of just how hard they have to work and how much the service is pushed these days.

Donating when and where you can really ought to be something all folk who go into the hills should do. So many of us have a friend or relative who has needed a rescue, or will do one day. Odds are it will save that person’s life. So it’s important. You can do it easily here, by the way.

I was asked to go along to the launch day of the campaign that Scottish Mountain Rescue and Isle of Skye Whisky are starting in Glen Nevis to take pictures to publicise the campaign in the papers and speak to Reporting Scotland. The amazing SARDA rescue dog sat stock still for 20 minutes for these pictures. 

As well as encouraging direct donations through their ability to attract a lot of attention as a big company, they are donating 15p per bottle of whisky sold to Scottish Mountain Rescue. I hope it raises enough to keep the teams equipped and able to keep doing such an amazing job. I hope I never need them myself, but I certainly am thankful that they are there.

Lectures and masterclasses coming up

I’ll be talking about the Eiger among other adventures in various lectures this autumn. Photo: Alexandre Buisse

If you fancy coming to hear about my climbing adventures and how I do the climbs I do, come along to some of the lectures I’m doing this autumn. Maybe see you at one of these places:

Oct 26th Dundee: I’m speaking for Tiso and the Dundee Rucksack Club for their 90 anniversary celebration. Tickets and more details on that coming shortly on Tiso’s site.

Nov 3rd: I’m speaking at the Ice Factor’s Festival of Ice and running climbing masterclasses in both rock and mixed climbing. The Festival will be a mega event. You should check out all the things that are going on there. The technique classes will fill up quickly so you should call Claire on 07813060376 to book a place. I’ll be running the rock technique classes 10-noon and 4-6pm, the mixed/dry tooling class 2-4pm and giving a talk at lunchtime.  Cost is £40 for a place on one of my classes. The event is to raise money for Climber’s against cancer.

Nov 4th Aberdeen: I’m speaking at the Aberdeen Tiso store. Tickets available at the store, £5, although you can enquire online about tickets from here by clicking on the start time at the bottom.

Nov 28th London: I’m speaking at the Royal Geographical Society for their annual Porter’s Progress lecture. Tickets here.

Dec 13th Bozeman Ice Festival, USA. I’m speaking at the festival and running ice/mixed technique clinics on Dec 14th.

See you there!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Esoteric Gems

Gordon Bombay, Font 7c+ from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

Esoteric gems are gems nonetheless. Yesterday I had to be in Edinburgh for a meeting with my Gore-Tex colleagues. On the way back I decided to swing past for a look at a couple of newly developed boulders near Lennoxtown.

Alex Gorham found and developed a handful of problems on lovely sandstone in the woods near the old Lennox Castle mental hospital. He waxed lyrical about the problems to me in TCA recently and had me keen for a look, even before I’d seen the excellent video on Alex and Jen's blog of his first ascent of Gordon Bombay (Font 7c+).

I went and repeated the problem after about an hour of finding the sequence. I thought I was going to get it on my second try, but the wrong sequence of toe hooks near the end seemed to get even more wrong before I figured out a better way. Toe hooks are one of my favourite moves, so I enjoyed it immensely and will be back to explore the area a bit more soon.

The place is only 20 minutes from my mums house, right near my earliest climbing haunts of Dunglas and Craigmore, where I climbed before I even got my first pair of rockshoes. Back then I would have been totally over the moon to come across that roof (and the other excellent problems). I regret not having a stronger exploratory zeal at the time. But as a youngster I just looked in the guidebook for what others had done and didn’t think so independently. It took a few years before I realised there was nothing stopping me from just going out and searching for great new routes that were obviously out there, hiding in the local hills and forests.

Fortunately, as a 35 year old, I still get over the moon to go and seek out and climb such a great problem. Even now it looks like the area will lend at least one more project to give me an excuse to return.

It's well worth checking out the video below of Alex doing it. It's pretty obvious our different shapes (me being a short chap) means we climb it quite differently in places. The other problems, especially Wow Jen (V5) are great too!

Lennoxtown Boulders from Alex Gorham on Vimeo.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Bellavista on 3.5 limbs

Cold but happy climbers after Bellavista. Photo: Alan Cassidy (you should read his blog, it’s really good)

Before my ‘long shot’ trip to Bellavista with Alan Cassidy, I had a small hiccup. I was leading Hold Fast, Hold True (E9) in Glen Nevis a week before we were leaving and didn’t quite catch a hold right after the crux, slipping off and decking out from rather higher than one would like. I got away lightly, with quite nasty whiplash and a sprained left ankle. I was able to walk, well, between the kettle and the couch anyway. So I felt it wouldn’t be a problem for the upcoming trip.

I left it 5 days and then tried to get a couple of pre-trip training sessions in TCA before we left. To my dismay, I discovered that I couldn’t even nearly get a rockshoe on my fat, bruised foot. I had a session of one-footed traversing anyway and then went for an X-ray since things seemed to be getting more, not less painful. Sure enough, a couple of bone spurs that have restricted my left ankle dorsiflexion ever since I broke it in 1997 had broken off and are irritating my ankle joint. Some day surgery awaits. I’m quite looking forward to a couple of weeks of Beastmaker abuse during the Lochaber monsoon next month.

By the day we left for Cima Ovest, I’d managed to walk round Morrison’s, take Freida to toddler group and lie on my side in bed without taking Tramadol first. Things were looking up!

Alan trying to get the psyche to rock climb in winter climbing conditions

As I wrote in my last blog, we then proceeded to spend most of the trip being hammered by crap weather. The route was soaking, it rained, snowed, snowed a lot more and then got windy and freezing. We tried to climb on the 8c pitch anyway, but both of us knew we were getting absolutely nowhere. We became totally set in the viewpoint that having been soaking all week, the chances of it drying out a bit in our remaining three days were zilch.

Being practical, or venting wet weather frustration? You decide.

But it didn’t quite work out like that. On the third last day, I went out for a look on the 8c pitch first. The first half was still wet, but the second half was nearly dry, and I could link it to the belay straight away. Quite good. Alan went for his go and was also feeling like he could get to grips with the pitch a bit more. But then, as he was out of sight near the end of the pitch, I heard an “AAAAAGGHHH!”. The rope jerked momentarily tight, then suddenly slack again. Another loud scream and Alan appeared into view, dropping through space. He stopped, dangling at least 15 metres down in the void, with quickdraws sporting ripped pegs spinning down the rope towards him.

He was just sitting on a peg, brushing another damp hold when it ripped and the previous one ripped too. It must have been an exciting journey into space! After having a good laugh about Alan’s trip, we had a think about where this left us. There was now a big section near the end of the pitch with no gear in it. We were on budget flight mode and hadn’t been able to bring any pegs or aid gear in case we needed to re-equip. 

In the end, we managed to borrow a hammer from the lovely folk at Rifugio Auronzo and I set up a tension traverse to back-aid and free climb back along from the next belay to the bit that needed re-equipping. I managed to get a sketchy cam in a pocket and gingerly sat on it and proceeded to fail to get the two ill fitting pegs to go in somewhere other than where they’d been before. After an hour, I had it sorted and the route was back online.

However, we had one day left. I just wanted to get the gear back and get home. Everything  was wrong and I felt a bit fed up to be honest. My ankle hurt on the walk-in, I couldn’t do certain movements with it on the rock, I’d had my fill of climbing wet rock or frozen rock, we’d not had even one good day to try it properly. Worst of all, it was baltic.

Shall we go climb an 8c north face route today?

We’d not seen a single other party climbing on the north faces all trip. I’m not surprised. On the last day we wandered up, both of us ready to strip it and get on our plane home. Alan climbed the first three pitches (7b, 6c+, 6a+) in one big pitch again. He was clearly struggling to get any feeling from fingers and toes. It was well below zero and blowing a bitter wind. Seconding him, I felt like a frozen robot, clawing up the rock with zero feedback from my digits. Leading the next two pitches (7a, 7a+) I still couldn’t even get my core warm despite climbing in my Arete jacket. However, by the time a freezing Alan joined me, the wind had dropped a bit and I was feeling more myself with the full belay jacket and trousers armoury on.

I went out along the start of the 8c and was most surprised to find a special scenario of feelings come over me that doesn’t happen every day. The pitch was the driest it had been all trip. First, there was the sudden rushing feeling of being confident flowing through the moves rather than constantly expecting to ‘ping’ off wet holds. ‘I can still climb!’ Second, the ‘last day’ go for broke mentality clicked into place. When all the preparation has gone so badly, what do you have left except to see what can happen if you just don’t care anymore and go for a good fight with the pitch? Finally, I knew I was going to have one link attempt, so I might as well get it over with as quickly as possible and get home to see my family.

Alan drying holds on one of the 'warm' days

So after the five minute warm up burn, I blasted off at full tilt, through the crux and onto the weird back-and-foot rest at the block above. I wasn’t that pumped. So get going! Up through the mono move and onto the big traverse. I was breathing hard but forearms were absorbing the hit so far. At the undercut move I decided to start really trying and grunted through. But I was able to rest each hand on every hold. I got down to the move before a rest at a huge ‘Hueco’ pocket. My sequence is to fling my feet up into the hole first, have a rest in the bat hang and then flip round and throw my whole arm into it. My ankle was so weak I couldn’t pull up on the toehooks and nearly fell off. I took a few seconds more to figure out what to do, before resting my left foot once and then trying again. It worked and I hung from the arm-bar for five minutes, breathing slowly calming down. The final ten metres was a pure exercise in relaxation. I knew I could get to the belay if I didn’t make a mistake. The only way I’d make a mistake would be if I started to anticipate success. So I just switched off and pneumatic-ed through the holds with no emotion until the belay suddenly appeared in front of me.

Switching off completely means that when you do wake up and realise it’s done, it’s quite a shocker and the emotion comes flooding back. Alan wasted no time in gathering every down garment we had assembled at the belay and jugged up to join me, already shivering. I thawed out a little in the duvet while Alan cruised the 8a pitch above. I still had to jug up the rope and be lowered back down to do it myself, just to get the blood moving. The wind just kept cutting through me and in the next two pitches (6c+, 7a) I got really pumped on what should be easy ground. There just seemed to be no blood going through my forearms. We both had to second the remaining pitches to the Cassin ledge in the big jackets and duvet trousers! Never done that before, even in mixed climbing. There was just time to strip our gear out of the roof as it was getting dark and made it down to the base to find everything was frozen solid. We packed, rushed back to the car, then Venice for three hours sleep before boarding our flights back to Scotland.

It was really interesting for me to share the experience with Alan, who hasn’t done a great deal of mountain big wall climbs. Failing when the route is hard is something most climbers can deal with pretty well - why else do we try such hard climbs except to feel pushed and feel uncertainty? But failing through not being able to properly try can get under your skin. I certainly still find that creates a lot of restlessness in me. Last week I channelled it into finishing a draft of my book while the blizzards raged outside. Alan took it all really well and was able to keep turning on 'mission mode' all the way on the last day redpoint, despite the scary fall the previous day. His blogs through the week are a nice illumination of an adventure unfolding, the final twist coming right at the last hours before the flight home.

Even now I can’t believe that came together.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Waiting to actually try on Bellavista

Last month after the Eiger I came to the Dolomites with Calum to have a go at Bellavista, Alex Huber’s famous 8c on the north face of Cima Ovest. We had one day on it when it was wet and then had to leave when faced with a forecast of a week of thunderstorms.

Not liking being defeated, I hastily arranged a return in September for a long shot week on it with Alan Cassidy. A long shot because it might be getting a little cold by then for alpine north face 8c. The roof pitches on Bellavista suffer from dampness a lot. Sometimes, it’s just damp, and it’s ok for getting on it, if a little slippery. But this time it’s been just wet, soaking bloody wet. And when it's not wet, it's full on winter.

On our first day it was actually a bit drier, but about minus 2 with a strong gusty wind bringing in some snow flurries. I went for a session in the roof and made a bit of progress even though I was shivering quite amusingly by the time I got back to the belay. Alan took one look at me from the comfort of the belay jacket and opted to go down. Sensible.

After that it did warm up to around 3 or 4 degrees on the wall, but the warm humid air on freezing rock made it soaking. We opted to go up and do the 8a pitch above the 8c which we both could do pretty easily despite the wetness.

Overnight and this morning the conditions have turned back to full on blizzards and so once again we are sitting it out. We have a couple more days but It’s looking almost certain that if it warms up again it’ll take longer than that for the slime to dry off that roof.

Nevermind, at least we have tried. And I have done a lot of writing...

Sunday 1 September 2013

Testing Gore-Tex Pro ME jackets on the Ben

Why we use GORE-TEX® Pro from MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT on Vimeo.

Some filming we did on Ben Nevis on the spring talking about why Mountain Equipment use Gore-Tex Pro for it’s shell jackets and how we dream up, design and test the jackets. Interesting to hear a bit more detail about the tech that goes into fabrics and jackets.

Sunday 18 August 2013

First Alpine route - Paciencia 8a, Eiger nordwand

On the crux of Paciencia, Eiger north face. All photos thanks to the talented Alexandre Buisse

June and July were some of the most busy and challenging days of my life, none of which involved any climbing. The death of my father Norman was not a good time. Not wishing to talk about it much more on this, my climbing blog, all I should say is that at least I was able time to spend time with him first.

There wasn’t much time before other life events called for action. Claire, Freida and I moved house. Just ‘round the corner’ to Roybridge. We now have a great base for Freida growing up and it was a pleasure to put my back into working on it and preparing it for my family. Each day, I got up early, worked until the wee small hours and repeat…

So my planned trip to the alps with Calum Muskett crept up on me. I’d done next to no climbing for several weeks with everything that had gone on. A few fingerboard sessions, a couple of TCA sessions, that’s it. I could still one arm a first joint edge. But endurance was nil.

Here mate, is that the Eiger?

When I started to drive south from the highlands, the extent of the problem with this started to dawn on me, since our discussed objectives were basically a list of the hardest routes in the alps. Top of the list was Paciencia, the hardest route on the north face of the Eiger. First freed in 2008 by Ueli Steck and then repeated just once by David Lama in 2011. Reading Lama’s blog made me wince. He rated it one of the hardest routes in the alps and said he was utterly exhausted by the time he reached the top. Although the pitch grades don’t too bad; 6b, 6a, 6a+, 7c, 7c, 7a, 8a, 7a+, 6b+, 6a+, 6a+, 7c, 7c+, 7b, 7a, 6a, 7a+, 7c, 7a, 6c+, 6b, 6b, 6c+ Many of the pitches are tad on the sandbag side. For instance, one of the 6b+s we thought translated to E4 6b.

On paper it was completely ridiculous for me to go near it. However, predictably, after meeting Calum in Chamonix we decided in about 2 minutes we’d head straight to the Eiger for the first route. It would also be my first alpine route.

Another great 7c pitch, full of north face atmosphere

A day later we were scrambling up the classic 1938 route to the foot of Paciencia. It was misty, damp and cold and after a drippy bivi I woke up ready to fail. Thankfully, our intention was just to have a recce and get our bearings on the Eiger. That day we hung about on the first few 7c and 8a pitches and I tried to give myself as big a workout as possible. I achieved that goal with ease.

I wasn’t sure about going back up. Perhaps it would be better to do a few easier routes first? I couldn’t think of a good way to even suggest that to Calum, who is already an accomplished alpinist, just a couple of years younger than me at 19. So we went back up, taking the photographer Alexandre Buisse with us for the first day. After soloing back up the 38 route in the afternoon we bagged the first few 7c pitches before dark and settled into our bivi, ready to go for the 8a in the morning. The morning however, was mostly spent melting snow to fuel some serious tea drinking on our ledge. Once we got started, we both dispatched the brilliant 8a pitch with much enjoyment. What an amazing pitch in spectacular surroundings.

Calum on the rather thin first 7c pitch

Our clear objective was for both of us to free the entire route with no falls, whether leading or seconding. All of the many 7b and 7c pitches were very hard to onsight, as we already knew from reading David Lama’s account. So we decided to give ourselves three full days to climb to the top since we would need the extra time for both of us to succeed on each of the 23 pitches. When we reached the second bivi below the Czech Pillar, we spent the following day both climbing the hard pitches that followed, before descending for one more night on the ledge. Both of us were tired that day, and I almost fell right at the end of a 7c+ pitch, where I knew Lama had also fallen. I knew I didn’t have the energy for another go within the hour, so I just held on like my life depended on it when a foothold broke 4 moves from the belay ledge. While Calum worked on the pitch, a helicopter appeared, hovering close by. The door opened and a long lens popped out and took some pictures of us. I thought to myself, that doesn’t happen in Scotland.

8a, or more tea?

We rose at 6am the next morning both feeling rather better than anticipated. Just as well, since the first task was to jung and haul the bag back to our highpoint before commencing the final 8 pitches, including one more of those nasty 7cs right near the top. We both climbed strongly on that pitch and we carried on that momentum all the way to the end, pulling into sunshine at 6pm on the top. The crux was yet to come for me however. I’d had blisters on my toes from wearing boots that didn’t fit my feet on the recce day. Nearly 4 days in my rockshoes had made them considerably worse. The walk back down to Grindelwald was a teeth gritter. Of course, now I’m sitting in a cafe the next day, everything feels better.

I learned a lot some new beta on big walling tactics from Calum, and was certainly inspired by his confidence, backed up with skill and problem solving ability. He took the route very much in his stride, as I’m sure he will many more harder routes. Thanks to Ueli Steck and Stefan Siegrist for opening the route. It must’ve taken a lot of effort.

So, where’s my boulder mat...

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Summer adventures

Sticking to warm slopers on Pallet Knife, Font 7b+, Torridon

After I got back from Pabbay, there was only a few days before the West Highland Way race I had entered. I had spent most of the spring thinking there was no possibility whatsoever thatI’d be able to do it. My ankle had progressed a bit, then got worse, then much worse, then a bit better again. I’d get a few runs in for a couple of weeks, then have to stop for a few weeks, then attempt to start again.

My total mileage from January to the start of June was only just double the length of the race. Oh dear. However, during June I did manage a couple of weeks running 60 miles a week, so that was better than nothing. I mostly did shorter runs because that’s all my foot would allow me to. The longest was only 25 miles. But I could do 10K in under 40 minutes so I was definitely better than couch potato standard. I figured that even if I could only run 40 or 50 miles, I’d walk in the rest and call it a success under the circumstances.

However, on my last run before the race, I realised I was about to pay for trying to go from zero to fit in a few short weeks. The plantar fascia I tore in last year’s accident started to burn sharply and I knew it was over. Nevertheless, I showed up at the start line and ran the first 20 miles before limping into Balmaha, not leaving any doubt in my mind. I was upset. The experience has left a bigger scar in my mind than in my foot. Perhaps after another year, my foot will be in better form for running. At least I can give it a break and start from scratch again. 

The trouble with these sorts of experiences is that they are a storm in a tea cup. In one part of your mind, it's really pretty upsetting. End of a little dream and all that. But to everyone else, it's no big deal. Life goes on. Lucky to be alive after the accident anyway etc.. All true. I guess I just haven't grown up enough to deal with such little frustrations. The scary thing is, I don't always feel like I want to.

So with that, my little diversion was consigned to the past, and two days later I was tied in at the foot of Conquistador E7 7a at the Loch Tollaidh crags. After a quick abseil brush and check of the gear, I decided to go for a flash attempt. I got through the initial boulder problem without any trouble. I felt pretty relaxed, and so I didn’t really notice the pump creeping in as I worked my way towards the second crux high on the route. This also went by without much trouble, but a sense of urgency suddenly hit me as I hung from a sloper trying to fiddle in a small RP. There were no footholds and so a bit of a grunt was required to pull over the final bulge into a face full of drizzle. The buzz was enough to clear some cobwebs and remind body and mind that it’s built for climbing steep rock.

Alicia enjoying some perfect sandstone in Glen Torridon

The following day myself and Alicia toured the lovely sandstone of Torridon and worked projects in the Arisaig Cave. I went back just afterwards and found a kneebar which changed a Font 8a project into another classic 7Cish (it was pretty damp when I did it so maybe it’s be easier in fresh weather).

After that, A period of three difficult weeks began. More about that in a separate post.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

The Great Arch, Pabbay, finally free

Donald King and myself, enjoying the boat ride back from Pabbay. The mugs were the boatman’s by the way.

June is often a time to get on a boat and go and find some amazing new sea cliff climbs to be done in the Hebrides. I’ve been lucky to have done more than my fair share over the past ten years. Yet they just keep coming! One place I’d never yet been was Pabbay. The obvious target was the Great Arch project.

The arch is of course the most striking and obvious challenge on the island. And like other lines of similar calibre such as the Longhope Route, it’s also going to be the hardest. Great! It was first tried by Cubby Cuthbertson and Lynn Hill while they were being filmed for a BBC TV programme in 1997. On that trip, the route didn’t go free although they did record it with a rest/aid point. With better weather and a bit more time, I’m sure they’d have done it. You don’t get a much stronger team that those two! Talking of strong teams, the next party to attempt it was Steve Mclure and Lucy Creamer a few years ago. Steve inspected the line on abseil and then made a great attempt to flash it, getting through the first crux. He fell in the roof, pulled back up to his highpoint on the rope and carried on to the end. He opted not to come back and make the free ascent. So, after all these years, it still needed doing. The projected grade I'd heard for the free ascent was E9 7a, but in the end E8 6c was more like it.

That is a roof that needs climbing.

I headed over with Donald King to see if we could do it. We had a good window of time to cope with the usual sea cliff problems of sea spray dampness and bad weather. So I was quite relaxed and excited about getting on it. On our first day I abseiled down the crux top pitch through the huge horizontal roof. It was totally damp with sea spray so all I could do that day was pull on and try a few individual moves in the roof on the GriGri and then do the first couple of wet pitches for something to do, abseiling off into the sea around midnight in fading light.

Next day I waited until the evening to even go on it in the hope the sea spray might dry out a bit more. It was fortunately drier when I arrived. I went down and played about a bit more on the abseil rope for an hour or so and had that feeling that maybe I ought to stop there and have a good go at the whole route the next day (and last before a big rainy front arrived).

On day three we were disappointed to find the dreaded sea spray hanging like a mist under the great arch. It was a roasting hot sunny day, but the route was dripping. All we could do was lie and sleep in the sun on the hot boulders at the base for four hours. Hard life eh?

Pitch 2.

However, sunbathing was not what I traveled all that way for. So at around tea time, almost without speaking, we got ourselves together and just started going upwards. Pitches 1 and 2 round the first pitch flew by in minutes. The big third pitch was a grunt with still wet holds lurking in the big roof, but it also went fairly smoothly for both Donald and myself. The infamous offwidth slot of pitch 4 was only a few metres in length, but my first experience of ‘scapular walking’. I have no idea if that is a climbing technique, but it worked. Pitch 5 was the most gloriously exposed and finely positioned 5a pitch I’ve ever climbed. It was so relaxing. A cool breeze began to blow as I started it, and became more and more noticeable as I shuffled across the brilliant incut flakes of gneiss, a huge roof below my feet, another looming directly overhead.

The roof of pitch 3 looming overhead. This pitch was about E5.

By the time I reached the belay below the crux 6th pitch through the great arch, the breeze was chilling me, and I could see the colour of the gniess turning before my eyes from a that familiar flat grey of dampness to the crisp white of dryness; and friction. It’s been a wee while since I’ve had that great feeling of ‘now is the time to go for it’. Simultaneously feeling a little queasy in the stomach, and anxious to release the physical energy and adrenaline which is bursting to get out.

The next thing I knew I was 10 metres up the pitch, leaning back with my hands off with double knee bars behind a huge undercut in the most outrageous position. The first crux was right above. A full stretch reach from the undercut to a tiny crimp and then a boulder problem to get to the break at the back of the arch itself. In the space of ten minutes I’d gone from a bag of nerves with a stomach full of butterflies, to feeling totally relaxed and just eager to go for it. So the first crux felt easy. 

Unsurprisingly, the transition to completely horizontal roof climbing felt a bit of a shock to the system, and I fumbled with two cams, and then decided not to even bother with the third. I was getting too pumped. I got really excited about the next seconds as I’d find out whether I had enough power to do the crux, or fling myself into the huge space below and test the cams and wires in the creaky roof flake. So I realised I better move it before excitement turned to nerves. What followed was a classic climbing moment of a blur of slapping hands, quickly made up sequences on the hop when I did it all wrong, and a bit of aggression. In no time I found myself stood above the lip, panting to catch my breath.

The great thing about roof climbs is once you get over the lip, it’s usually over and you know it. All that was left was to fully soak up the spacey atmosphere as I abseiled back down to strip the roof and dangle around on the rope waxing about the route just climbed as the sun finally sunk into the sea.

After a 1am dinner of curry, rice pudding and cups of tea at the tents, the rain started. 36 hours or storm later, the back of the great arch had become a waterfall which would have taken days to dry out, and we got on an early boat home. On the ferry back from Barra, we were suitably inspired to seek out some more obvious great lines to point ourselves at in the Hebrides in the not too distant future. A good start to the summer, which has come seriously late in the highlands this year.

Well happy abseiling back down to strip the runners from the roof.

A happy rock climber

A still happy rock climber abbing in to do Prophesy of Drowning, E2, just before getting the boat home. If you climb E2, you must do this route.

Smiles are a running theme for rock climbers on Pabbay. It’s pretty good!

Do you need any more convincing that Prophesy of Drowning is a very very good E2?

Hebridean sunsets on the ferry home. A good moment to dream up new climbing plans.